Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The SS President Arthur: the Zionist Mayflower Part III: A Lesson in Marketing Upscale Travel

The American Palestine Line surely had an effective publicist, most likely Judge Jacob Strahl himself. In November 1924, the Times noted that purchasers had paid $60,000 in cash for the steamship “for use in making pilgrimages to the Holy Land.”[i] A Pentecostal newspaper filled in some important details on its “Jewish Notes” page:  “A strictly Kosher menu will be served on the President Arthur, but persons desiring to vary their diet with pork can arrange to dine with the officers mess.”[ii]

Though Strahl and his partners were based in New York, word of the trip was spreading across the U.S. and Palestine. In February 1925, Chicago’s Daily Jewish Courier carried five articles about the President Arthur. The first pointed out that both the captain and first mate of the ship were non-Jews, a “lesson in liberality” that the Ku Klux Klan should absorb.[iii] The next article speculated that Bishop Manning of New York, who had made an “inquiry” about the ship, “May Eat Kosher” if he actually embarked along with “many other less known . . . priests” from whom the American Palestine Line had received inquiries.[iv] 

A few days later, “New York, Palestine at last to get a square deal in shipping” described how American Palestine had successfully – and self-sacrificially – argued against high cargo rates on goods bound for Palestine.[v] A week later, two articles appeared on page 1:  “Freight service to Palestine cut to one third price” and “Rabbis to have ‘minyan’ on Jewish steamer.”[vi]  And two weeks later the Courier noted, “Both on the ship and on the shore the spirits shall be exalted.”[vii]

Also in early February, the one-month-old Palestine Bulletin, forerunner of the Jerusalem Post, carried a large display advertisement, in English: “First direct and quick connection . . . Goods dispatched by this steamer will reach New-York in fifteen days.  For perishable goods there is no better opportunity. . . . Best comfort for passengers.”[viii]

Chicago’s Jewish periodical, the Sentinel, carried a photo of the President Arthur in early January 1925.[ix] In early February, the Sentinel reported that the ship’s owners had announced that the ship would carry “without charge” up to three tons of items “intended for free distribution in Palestine.”[x] Another article in the same issue described “Dr. Lewin-Epstein [who] heads Palestine staff of American-Palestine Line”:  “an ideal representative on the ground whose personality and public record are the best guarantee for the highest type of service to its passengers.”[xi]

Clearly the idea of a Jewish ship captured the imagination of many. Solomon Small (aka Smulewitz) wrote lyrics in transliterated Yiddish and music to “President Arthur’s Zion Ship”[xii]  with the refrain:
President Arthur, sail
Blazing for my children a trail.
I have waited ages long
With a mother's yearning strong.
Israel, my child thou art free
Cometh redemption to thee. . .[xiii]

In the two weeks before the President Arthur departed, press enthusiasm continued to build based largely, it seems, on a steady stream of press releases from Brooklyn. The Chicago Courier reported that not only would the mayor of New York and many prominent government officials attend the launch, but the Hebrew Sheltering House League had adopted a resolution “providing for its participation in the exercises.”[xiv] The implications of the President Arthur’s voyage extended far beyond the simple transport of tourists; the Courier noted that the “Foreign Market, Serving 35 Million People, [is being] Opened by Jewish Steamer.”[xv]

One week before departure, the New York Times reported that the ship in a “successful series of tests . . .  developed a speed of 19.7 knots.” George R. Freeman, marine superintendent of the line, speculated that although the company had planned a “fifteen-day run” the speed “will probably reduce” the voyage “to twelve to thirteen days.”[xvi] In fact, it took nineteen days.

[i]  “New Yorkers Buy Steamship to Start Route to Palestine,” New York Times, November 4, 1924, 23.
[ii] “Jewish Steamers,” Pentecostal Evangel, December 13, 1924, 6."president arthur". Accessed March 18, 2009.
[iii]  “The N.Y. World, the K.K.K. and the President Arthur,” Chicago Daily Jewish Courier, February 5, 1925, 1.
[iv]   “Bishop Manning May Eat Kosher,” Chicago Daily Jewish Courier, February 6, 1925, 1.
[v]   “New York, Palestine at last to get a square deal in shipping,” Chicago Daily Jewish Courier, February 15, 1925, 1.
[vi]   “Freight service to Palestine cut to one third price,” and “Rabbis to have ‘minyan’ on Jewish steamer,” Chicago Sunday Jewish Courier, February 22, 1925, 1.
[vii]   “The Jewish flag on the Jewish ship,” Daily Jewish Courier, March 2, 1925, 1.
[viii]   Palestine Bulletin, February 6, 1925, 4. Another large ad later proclaimed “Freight rates the same as on other lines although ours is a very fast steamer,” Palestine Bulletin, February 27, 1925, 4.
[ix]   “S.S. President Arthur Flies Jewish Flag,” Sentinel, January 2, 1925, p. 33.
[x]   “Jewish steamer offers free service to Palestine,” Sentinel, February 6, 1925, p. 4.
[xi]  “Dr. Lewin-Epstein Heads Palestine Staff of American-Palestine Line, Sentinel, February 6, 1925, 5.
[xii] “Songwriter, lyricist, bard, actor . . . Solomon Smulewitz [a.k.a. Small] (1868–1943) was born in Minsk, Belarus, and immigrated to the United States in 1889.”  He was an active early Yiddish composer.
[xiii]  YIVO/Music Collection, RG 112 Folder 279 Box 20, quoted in Accessed March 18, 2009.
[xiv]  “Ceremonies,” Chicago Sunday Jewish Courier, March 8, 1925, 1.
[xv]  “Foreign Market, Serving 35 Million People, Opened by Jewish Steamer,” Chicago Sunday Jewish Courier, March 15, 1925, 1.
[xvi]  “Marry on the Roof of Rabbi Pool’s Home,” New York Times, March 9, 1925, Sports/Automobiles section, 17.

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